Skills Kids Need for Different Math Subjects

By Brendan R. Hodnett, MAT
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Geometry. Algebra. Statistics. Different types of math require different skills. That’s why a child might do well in one math class but not another.

Here are the types of skills used in different math subjects.

Type of math

Skills involved

Who might struggle

Arithmetic
  • Understanding numerical values and basic math symbols (like the = sign)
  • Doing operations (addition, subtraction, division, multiplication)
  • Comparing numbers and place value
  • Estimating
  • Understanding terms like sum, product, difference, quotient

Kids who struggle with number sense and concepts such as greater than/less than might have a hard time with arithmetic. Or kids who have trouble remembering math facts and step-by-step procedures.

Algebra
  • Understanding symbolic representations, like variables
  • Understanding order of operations and inverse relationship between operations
  • Graphing on a coordinate plane
  • Recognizing patterns
  • Factoring, simplifying

Kids who get confused by symbols and variables. And kids who have trouble with handwriting may make errors that lead to mistakes in multi-step algorithms.

Kids who have trouble understanding things visually may reverse numbers. This can make it hard to write and solve equations.

Geometry
  • Recognizing shapes
  • Understanding geometric properties, like symmetry
  • Measuring shapes
  • Using geometric vocabulary
  • Doing shape transformations, like rotations

Kids with language difficulties may struggle with the tricky math vocabulary in geometry.

Kids with visual-spatial difficulties may have trouble with the highly visual nature of geometry, like working with shapes and estimating measurements.

Precalculus/Calculus
  • Factoring
  • Graphing functions
  • Simplifying expressions
  • Using graphing calculators
  • Understanding abstract concepts, such as the limit of a function
  • Understanding symbolic and visual representations

Kids who have trouble with algebra often struggle with calculus, too.

Calculus can also be hard for kids who struggle with abstract thinking, like figuring out which formula could best solve a problem.

But kids who enjoy solving problems in a methodical, organized way might do really well with calculus. That’s because calculus is often taught using a step-by-step approach.

Statistics
  • Collecting and organizing data
  • Solving for and using percentages
  • Reading and graphing data
  • Simulating data collection

Statistics is especially tough for kids who struggle with fractions and percentages and with comparing values.

It’s also tough for kids who have a hard time organizing, planning, and prioritizing.

But some kids who struggle with focus might be more engaged and motivated in a statistics class than in other math classes. That’s because statistics is more connected to real-world situations.

Trigonometry
  • Graphing functions
  • Solving proportions
  • Using properties of triangles and circles to solve problems
  • Understanding symbolic and visual representations

Kids who struggle to make sense of diagrams. It can also be tough for kids who have trouble remembering the many properties and big vocabulary of trigonometry.

But kids who like a step-by-step approach might really enjoy trigonometry. They may have an easier time seeing similarities from one problem to the next.

About the Author

About the Author

Brendan R. Hodnett, MAT 

is a special education teacher in Middletown, New Jersey, and an adjunct professor at Hunter College.

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